by Chris Ritter

Is the way for the UMC to overcome its human sexuality impasse to loosen our standards across the board?  A plan favored by a majority of our bishops says it is.   But there is nothing approaching consensus as General Conference prepares to vote in February.  The “One Church Plan” was not named by the Commission on a Way Forward that developed it.  Rather, it was branded by some of the 60+%* of the Council of Bishops who endorsed it, just prior to the Judicial Council ruling they were to have no hand in bringing the report to General Conference.

The majority of General Conference has opposed the strategy employed by the One Church Plan for years.  In spite of its billing as a compromise, not one group on the evangelical/traditionalist side of the church says they could live in such an arrangement.  Quite the opposite.  The Wesleyan Covenant Association was founded in October 2016 with the statement that such a “local option” approach would fracture the church.  The Confessing Movement has said they could not live with it.  Our largest U.S. conference recorded a straw vote indicating an exodus of thousands of United Methodists if such a plan passed.

I recently was the guest at a gathering of African UM leaders who seemed unanimously opposed to the One Church Plan (OCP) which would change the definition of marriage for the entire Church.   The OCP gives Central Conferences outside the U.S. an opportunity to vote in alternative rules for those places where same sex marriage is illegal.  If the laws of the land change, however, the theology of marriage changes automatically to adjust to culture.  (The plan gives clergy the guaranteed right to officiate same sex weddings wherever they are legal.)  Current and future gay bishops would also continue in spiritual oversight over the whole church through the General Superintendency.  I am told our active African Bishops, representing some 40% of United Methodists, recorded their opposition to the OCP at the most recent Council of Bishops’ meeting and insisted a Traditional Plan be included in the Way Forward report.

Some modest opposition to the One Church Plan has been recorded from the thoroughly Progressive side of the denomination.  Disappointments with the plan seems to have been somewhat reconciled at the recent St. Louis gathering of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition at which Dr. Dorothy Benz argued OCP represented the “necessary first steps for justice.”  Under the One Church Plan, the UMC would follow the pattern established by the Episcopal Church for a full  and eventual reversal of the traditionalist position.

Unlikely Opponents

In addition to groups formally on record as against the One Church Plan, it is interesting to note opposing voices coming from those who otherwise support same-sex marriage.  Lonnie Brooks, a long-time influential lay leader from Alaska and frequent petitioner to Judicial Council, has criticized the One Church Plan for not accomplishing enough separation to protect the consciences of traditionalists.  Before the release of the report, Brooks noted the challenge created by the consecration of Karen Oliveto to the episcopacy.  Her salary is being paid by General Church funds, making Traditionalists responsible for her financial support.  Brooks commented, “If this model has any chance to be adopted at General Conference 2019 as the way forward, then the episcopacy of The UMC will have to be regionalized to provide that a bishop’s authority does not extend beyond the region in which the bishop was elected.”  He recognized that the plan’s promise that each U.S. conference would fund its own bishop would require constitutional amendments, something the authors of the One Church Plan hoped very much to avoid.

When the plan was released, Brooks noted that the promised protection was not provided:

The legislation before us does not include the promised provision, probably because such a provision was, correctly, determined to be unconstitutional without amending the Constitution. In fact the legislation leaves the episcopacy unchanged and untouched.

Brooks argues that the authors of the One Church Plan are misleading us with the plan’s suggestion that GCFA could later invent a new means of funding bishops.  If this could have been accomplished without amending our constitution, they would have included it in the plan rather than hinting that it might be done later by others.  Brooks authored a version of the One Church Plan with the necessary separation of the episcopacy through constitutional amendments.

Another unlikely opponent is Professor Ted Campbell, Professor of Church History at Perkins School of Theology.  In a recent post he criticized the One Church Plan for its dis-empowerment of laity:

One thing that baffles me about the One Church Plan is its sense of how fabulous it is that laity would not participate in making decisions about the ordination of gay and lesbian people. I think it’s a big problem. This provision in the One Church Plan follows the longstanding precedent of the UMC and its Methodist predecessors… that all matters of clergy credentialing are handled by the clergy session or executive session of the annual conference. This means that laity would participate only in the general-conference decision to allow annual conference clergy sessions to make the decisions, but within the annual conferences, laity would not have a voice.

Campbell notes that it will be unfair to ask gay and lesbian clergy to serve without the blessing of the laity of their conference.

Campbell also argues that the One Church Plan will lead to a messy break-up of the denomination.  Unlike the Connectional Conference Plan or the Traditional Plan, the OCP contains no sorting mechanism to place churches and clergy under a covenant with which they can live.  He notes:

The preface to the section on the One Church Plan states that “In the One Church Plan, no annual conferences, bishops, congregations, or pastors are compelled to act contrary to their convictions”, but that’s just barely so, if at all. Laity are not “compelled” to make these decisions because they aren’t allowed a voice in the matter (see above). But significant dissent from congregations on these matters raises the specter of a patchwork of congregations dividing from the denomination on both conservative as well as progressive grounds.

In other words, the One Church Plan does not do the job of holding the denomination together.  Not enough separation is provided in order for the plan to be workable in our seriously divided church.  If the One Church Plan passes, there will not be a single conference in the United States operating under the same rules we have now in our Discipline.  The claim of contextualization is overblown and misleading.

Bill Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of American Church History at Perkins School of Theology, is a former President of the Judicial Council and has submitted a brief concerning the One Church Plan in which he argues the plan is unconstitutional in five of its seventeen legislative enactments.  He argues the OCP:

  • invites bishops to intrude into powers reserved for boards of ordained ministry and clergy sessions of the annual conferences.
  • unconstitutionally directs bishops in how to exercise their appointive authority.
  • mandates that church conferences will be held where the constitution provides no such authority.
  • confuses whether a clergy session approves candidates for commissioning and ordination or merely recommends them.
  • mandates that bishops unconstitutionally interfere with the frequency with which annual conferences may decide on matters related to certification, ordination and appointment.

I believe Lawrence would argue that he is not so much against the One Church Plan as for our Constitution.  Some of these constitutional problems with the One Church Plan can be repaired, but others are more difficult to resolve.  It seems that the most problematic measures strike at details intended to defend the interests of traditionalists.  This places the OCP’s assurances of a stable, workable harmony in grave doubt.

Coerced Unity

The basis of the One Church Plan is that we should change our definition of Christian marriage, our ordination standards, and the moral expectations placed on our bishops… all of which are derived from our understanding of Scripture… and that those who support these present standards should just sit there and take it.  No mechanism is given for those with inevitable moral objections to re-affiliate with another body, as in the Connectional Conference or Traditional Plans.  No exit ramp is provided for churches and clergy to leave the church. The plan simply states what those who leave (if they can somehow manage it under the present rules) must pay into the system on their way out the door.   Coerced unity never works well.  I appreciate the voices of those who affirm same-sex marriage but reject the One Church Plan as a way forward for the UMC.

An inconvenient truth in United Methodism is that our ham-handed attempts at unity (Jurisditionalism in 1939 and Pluralism in 1968) have done more damage to the mission than our occassional splits.  I hope General Conference listens to the growing chorus of voices that recognize the One Church Plan as a the wrong solution to our deep divisions.

 

* There are wide differences of opinion about what the Council of Bishops did with their recommendation.  Bishop Bill Lewis reports a straw poll was held at the May COB meeting in which each of the 62 active bishops votes for the plan they most support.  He says the result of that was One Church Plan 39, Connectional Conference Plan 15, and Traditional Plan 8 (63% support for the OCP).  When a later vote was held on the final report, he reports the vote as 54 yes and 8 no, or 87%.  This has been reported by some as 87% support for the OCP.  I contend that approving the report did not equate with an endorsement of the One Church Plan.  This is also the view of Bishop Scott Jones as shared with the Texas Annual Conference.  The report only reached supermajority level of support once all three plans were included.  African bishops insisted that something beyond the two plans (OCP and CCP) be included.  I can name several bishops in the USA/Europe alone that do not believe OCP is the best path forward for the UMC.  Reports of supermajority support for the One Church Plan, I believe, are inaccurate.

Photo Credit:  Adapted from https://www.gnjumc.org/news/message-from-bishop-schol-council-of-bishops-recommendation/

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